three queer BIPOC sit on a dark red sofa pushed against a wall. Two more queer BIPOC sit at their feet and lean against the legs of the person sitting in the middle of the couch. They all have their arms lovingly draped around each other
(ggggrimes Art)

Centering LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and people of color, Prism’s Gender Justice for Liberation series draws from current events and lived experiences to explore the roots of today’s most urgent issues and oppressions, and highlight how we are reimagining a world transformed by gender justice and all of its joy, abundance, community, diversity, and promise.

Cuba’s new proposed Family Code is truly remarkable. It seeks to intentionally move away from colonial definitions of family toward a more inclusive and expansive understanding that honors, as Leidys Maria Labrador Herrera puts it, “the plurality evident in Cuban society when it comes to this fundamental unit, [and] allows for the inclusion and protection of families that break from the most traditional and conservative models, providing them rights and opportunities.” It includes increased protections for children and an increase in rights for women and the elderly, as well as marriage, adoption, and surrogacy rights for queer citizens. 

When presenting the code for the vote at the National Assembly, Justice Minister Oscar Manuel Silvera Martínez acknowledged this code as one that promotes “love, affection, care, sensitivity, respect for others and the harmony of our families.” As the Communist Party of Cuba names, “a family is not successful based on its structure or the number of members. A family is a social structure that recognizes itself as such and takes on the duties and responsibilities it entails.”

This Family Code proposal highlights the need to reimagine family on a massive social scale. Reimagining family means challenging how white colonial ideals have been used to define family throughout the colonized world. It requires us to examine how the state and the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy demonize and other queer, non-nuclear, and non-conformist families. It also requires us to acknowledge the disproportionate social privilege and power granted to the heteropatriarchal nuclear family structure. Queer, non-nuclear, and non-conformist family models represent a separation from and a denouncing of the gender inequities and hierarchical roles within traditional families, which is why they must be defended and celebrated. 

Banning co-living groups

This year, Shawnee, Kansas, made national news when its city council unanimously voted to ban co-living groups. The new ordinance defines co-living groups as “four or more unrelated adults living together,” and only one adult needs to be unrelated for the entire group to be considered unrelated. The city council’s memorandum also states that the ordinance will revise the definition of “family” to include “(1) any number of related persons living together; or (2) not more than 3 unrelated adults living as a single housekeeping unit.”

Ordinances like this are one reason why it is necessary to reimagine family and specifically challenge the idea that family or relation is solely determined by blood or marriage (or legal adoption). Anusha, 24, understands family as “anyone who is committed to care and prioritizing you in their life, in whatever capacity you see fit.” Her own family consists of her biological mother and brothers, as well as others in her community who have become family over the years—including a few friends and their parents, and even former teachers—some of whom have been disowned by their own biological families. “My family is mixed, and I adore that,” she says. 

Nicel, 24, is an Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese person in a non-nuclear family with their four housemates, “all queer and trans, including in the political sense.” They understand that blood is not enough to make a family and say they never knew how much they were missing real community until they found family with their housemates. “I think my biggest challenge is being told over and over that family is blood, and that blood is unconditional love, even if it’s poison,” they say. “Family is whoever feels like home.”

They describe their family as “an interconnected web holding each other up,” explaining how they “each operate under a ‘take what you need, give what you can’ approach” and refuse to box themselves into “fixed, oppressive roles.” Resistance to recognizing queer, non-conformist families like Nicel’s as legitimate reflect a deep societal attachment to such fixed, oppressive roles delineated along gender lines in the traditional nuclear family model. 

The Kansas co-living ordinance would criminalize Nicel’s family and prevent them from sharing a home, and it is unfortunately not an anomaly. In 2011, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld a similar ban targeting college students in Columbia, South Carolina, which prohibits more than three unrelated adults from sharing housing. The unanimous court described the ordinance as “a valid exercise of the city’s broad police power.” In 2013, the Watertown, New York, city council passed a ban on unrelated roommates in “single-family homes” in a 3-2 split vote after a woman complained about her neighbor living with his fiancé and two friends. Then-mayor Jeff Graham voted against the ban, saying the complainant just “didn’t like the fact that there were people who weren’t a basic, nuclear family living there.” 

Ordinances like these protect capitalist interests by criminalizing poverty and communal living. They are also examples of the state’s ability to define family and relation in ways that benefit the state and its institutions while bringing non-traditional families and communities under scrutiny. When the state defines family along such rigid lines, recognizing the nuclear family structure as the most legitimate and lawful, it is an intentional othering of the family structures more common among the queer and gender-diverse communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. 

Colonial structures dictate familial norms

Narrow, conservative definitions of family that place unfair restrictions on housing access are also harmful to single and unmarried people, especially those among the working poor struggling to stay housed amid rising housing costs. Co-living with non-nuclear, chosen family is the only affordable option for many singles, especially people of marginalized genders impacted by the gender wage gap. Moreover, the state excludes unmarried people from the many tax breaks and other benefits afforded to those who are married, even as it penalizes disabled people who might want to marry but are unable to because marriage would mean forfeiting their much needed disability supports and benefits. 

CJ is part of a multi-partner Romani family in their 20s who live together and share household responsibilities. Their family consists of CJ’s life partner, N, and N’s other life partner, S. Together, the three fulfill parental roles to one of the partners’ children, and they plan to have more children together in the future. While they would like to get married, disability and U.S. law prohibiting plural marriage prevent them. 

“None of us can get legally married, which creates issues within health care in particular. People think that ‘marriage equality’ was solved when it was federally legalized in 2015, but that’s just not true,” CJ laments. “Disabled people, including us, cannot get legally married without losing access to things like state insurance, and my partner cannot legally marry both me and my ‘partner-in-law.’ So we are recognized as married by the law of our culture, but not by any section of the US government.” In the face of stigma against multi-partner families and households, CJ sees their family as “an explicitly anti-colonial, anti-capitalist structure.” Queer and non-conformist families should be able to determine the structure of their marriages, regardless of whether they resemble cultural marriage norms. 

The demonization and othering of non-sexual relationships 

Not only do colonial definitions of family bar people in non-nuclear, multi-partner families from the benefits and protections plural marriage would afford them, but these rigid ideals also dictate the legitimacy of monogamous marriage through its sexualization. The same Christian conservatives who rally against “same-sex marriage” also demonize platonic and non-sexual marriages and are now pushing to outlaw them. 

Dozens of Christian nationalist groups drafted a letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell in July denouncing the Respect for Marriage Act—what they call “a startling expansion of what marriage means.” They presented many reasons for opposing the act and specifically named both plural marriages and platonic marriages as potential negative outcomes of such an expansion. 

In “Why We Should Push Back Against Platonic Marriage,” a staunch defender of traditional marriage argues that separating sex from marriage will only lead to “destruction” and declares that societal and legal recognition of platonic marriage “adds more fuel to the inferno.” Platonic marriage, he insists, “lacks the richness and color that sexual union bestows on relationships,” lamenting the fact that people “who identify as ‘asexual’ can now find a place within the institution of marriage.” The Christian conservative view of marital sex constructs it as another means of upholding the gender binary and heteropatriarchal socio-sexual rule; therefore, sexless marriages are an abomination within their belief system. 

In Elizabeth F. Emens’ “Compulsory Sexuality,” published in the Stanford Law Review, Emens explores the place of asexuality within marriage law and the “legal requirements of sexual activity.” She writes, “Our legal system assumes sexuality in a range of ways … [and] asexuality invites us to see the implicit sexual baselines in our sexual law.” Emens identifies several ways that “legal marriage effectively requires consummation for its fullest ratification. For instance, in some states, nonconsummation of a marriage is a ground for voiding the marriage.” Furthermore, entering into a marriage with intent not to consummate or “not to have intercourse likely to produce progeny” can be considered “fraudulent intent.” These things have implications for anyone who is married or wants to be married, whether asexual or not. 

Enforcing compulsory sexual activity within marriage intentionally narrows the definition of marriage, invalidating non-sexual marriages and relationships. The Christian conservative push against platonic and non-sexual marriage is about ensuring that the definition of marriage, and therefore family, is not allowed to expand. It’s a naked attempt to reify the colonial ideals that position the gender hierarchy of heteropatriarchal, sexually active unions with the intent to reproduce as the only right and fully legal form of marriage and family. 

Compulsory sexuality and the assumption that all intimate partnerships must include sex leads to challenges against the legitimacy of non-sexual partnerships, whether marriage is a factor or not. Z, 25, is a trans and asexual Hakka-Chinese immigrant living in Australia. They are in a queerplatonic partnership—what they call a “committed familial relationship”—with their best friend, who is also trans and asexual. 

Even within their own queer community, Z and their partner face mockery and challenges to the legitimacy of their relationship. Others have “made fun of the ‘ace AFABs with QPPs (queerplatonic pals)’ stereotype and expressed that they think people like this are often childlike, reluctant to commit, surrounded by interpersonal drama and emotional turmoil,” viewing Z’s partnership as “no different than ‘straight girls with friends’ because it exists without a sexual component. 

“The nuclear family model was never going to be relevant for us,” Z says. “Our mutual desire to raise children together in the future has nothing to do with biological desire, but more out of our mutual love of teaching, education, and investing in the next generation of marginalized peoples like us.”

A case worth celebrating 

In July, a landmark Swedish Supreme Court case provided a glimpse of hope for people in such arrangements when the court upheld the legal legitimacy of a non-sexual partnership. Two women had lived together as life partners with shared finances. When one woman passed away with a life insurance policy meant to be paid to her partner, her parents contested it, citing the fact that their relationship had not been a sexual one. 

The Supreme Court ruled in the partner’s favor, declaring that “even a relationship without sexual cohabitation can constitute a relationship within the meaning of the [Cohabitation Act], and this applies regardless of the reason why no sexual cohabitation occurs.” The court went on to affirm that what must be taken into consideration is “whether there is a special affiliation and trust between the people and a willingness to share life together.”

Z is no longer surprised by the kind of narrow-minded sentiments that lead people to believe that non-sexual partnerships are not as legitimate as sexual ones. “When the traditional family structure is lauded as the ultimate end goal and a sign of maturity for anyone, regardless of background, it isn’t hard to guess why people who reject it would be infantilized and mocked,” they explain. 

That’s why the outcome of this Swedish case is one worth celebrating across the globe. As Emens reflects in “Compulsory Sexuality,” “to have any legal benefits depend on sexual activity [is] a burden on many asexuals as well as anyone else who is not having sex, whether by inclination or decision.” Legal or social requirements for sexual activity to be present for a partnership or marriage to be considered legitimate has implications for anyone in non-sexual intimate relationships, whether asexual or not. 

The outcome of this case should inspire us to question why any court has the power to determine the legitimacy of anyone’s intimate relationship on the basis of sex or otherwise. We should interrogate why the state gets to define relationships and family for us and what logic or ideologies are used to determine such definitions. We should think deeply about why we must meet a narrow criteria to qualify as a family, and whom this criteria serves. 

There are undeniable interpersonal and institutional repercussions for creating unconventional families, particularly those not legally recognized by the state as family. And in the midst of these repercussions and barriers, queer, non-nuclear, and non-conformist families continue to find meaning, building sustainable, joyful, and abundant ways to love and grow outside of the confines of social convention and oppressive hierarchies. We should have the freedom to make our own determinations about our families and to define them in whatever way best serves us and the well-being of our loved ones.

Sherronda J. Brown is a Southern-grown essayist, editor, storyteller, and the author of Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture.